Critical Review of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age
In his 2005 article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, Siemens outlined a new way of thinking about learning based on the recent advances in information technology. He argues that this new theory, connectivism, supersedes previous learning theories, including behaviourism, cognitivism, and contructivism. In this post, I am seeking to further my understanding of this new theory, examine its limitations, and consider its relevance to both classroom teaching as well as knowledge management practices within organizations.
Siemens argues that the explosion of information available on the Internet, the pace of technological, organizational, and professional change, and the vast number of online connections that can be made between individuals and groups via social media (including colleagues, friends, organizations, corporations, associations, institutions, professional communities, informal communities, etc.), have fundamentally altered the nature of how we should think about knowledge. In the past, the knowledge required for professional competence changed little over the lifespan of one’s career. A doctor or engineer could develop their skills at university, and continue to apply those same principles until they retired. Today, the pace of change is so rapid that continued competence requires ongoing learning (and unlearning), and the exposure to vast amounts of knowledge over a lifetime. In fact, the amount of knowledge required can no longer be contained within the mind of a single individual, and instead, according to connectivism, is now better stored and processed through technology. Knowledge today exists in web sites, databases, video archives, and thousands of other information repositories, both public (on the Internet) and private (within organizational intranets). Smaller amounts of knowledge are also stored within the minds of different people. One person will have tacit knowledge that differs from another person, but if they are connected to one another and able to interact, that knowledge can be shared. This sharing can take place through face-to-face interactions, but is also possible through online tools such as Twitter, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and many more. As a result, vast amounts of knowledge are available to anyone with access to the network, the ability to navigate it effectively, and possessing a wide range of connections to knowledgeable people. For connectivists, the network itself (as the foundation for all current and future learning and knowledge) is more important than the knowledge that flows through it (which likely will be quickly outdated and irrelevant).
In the article, Siemens outlines the fundamental principles of connectivism:
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting
reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision (p. 4).
For Siemens, connectivism is a significant departure from previous learning theories because it sees learning occurring outside of the individual, within the network:
Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual (and her/his physical presence – i.e., brain-based) in learning. These theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e., learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations (p. 2).
From this perspective, connectivism can be seen as bringing a unique perspective to learning theory, as well as posing interesting (and challenging) epistemological questions, such as the very meaning of knowledge and learning.
For connectivists, the starting point is always the individual learner (Siemens, 2005). The path to gaining knowledge comes through an individual, possibly with the assistance of others, establishing their own personal knowledge network of relevant information resources (e.g., valuable web sites, academic or professional journals, conferences, etc.) and information connections. These connections may consist of relationships with knowledgeable co-workers or professional colleagues, but also online Communities of Practice, mediated through web-based discussion forums, LinkedIn groups, or Twitter communities. As the individual’s personal knowledge network (PKN, sometimes referred to as a Personal Learning Network or Personal Learning Environment) matures and expands, the quality of the learning will also grow, making it increasingly valuable over time. An effective personal knowledge network can provide access to new ideas, innovations, successful experiments, failed results, and, if constructed with diversity in mind, contrary opinions that can be cause for reflection, re-consideration, and personal growth.
Jarche (n.d.) describes the development of a personal knowledge network as an ongoing process of 1) seeking new information and connections, 2) making sense of the new information encountered through integration with existing knowledge, reflection, writing, and enhancing the new knowledge, and finally, 3) sharing the results of the seeking and sense-making back to others in the network. This can serve as an effective starting point for anyone interested in establishing their own PKN, or for those responsible for facilitating a connectivist learning experience for others.
As connectivism gains in influence, such as through the special issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning recently dedicated to it (Anderson, 2011), others have begun to explore the theory further. In the issue, Kop (2011) draws attention to three important limitations of connectivism, including the ongoing need for critical literacies and the power relations on the network. To be effective, connectivism will need to explain how to best support critical thinking within the network and also challenge the unequal power relations that will inevitably appear. Second, the level of learner autonomy is another important issue. In an ideal world, adult learners are self-directed (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005). Unfortunately, years of disempowering education in schools, colleges, and universities has often robbed adults of the ability to be self-directed, and in some cases has made them fearful of it. Connectivism is based upon the active participation of self-directed learners and therefore, explaining how this can be nurtured within dependent individuals will be an important part of its future iteration. Third, the level of presence is an important factor for connectivism:
There is a high level of presence when a participant in an online activity experiences the activity as if it were taking place in real life, without the mediation of the computer. Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) argued that deep and meaningful learning results if three forms of presence play a role in education: “cognitive presence,” which ensures a certain level of depth in the educational process; “social presence”; and, in a formal educational environment, “teacher presence.” In PLE-based connectivist learning, the teacher would not necessarily be present, but one could argue that there are knowledgeable others on the Web who would take on that teacher role to a certain extent. For people to take an active, participative, and critical role in connectivist learning, they need communication and collaboration with and feedback from others, the same as in classroom-based learning (n.p.).
For Kop, all three of these issues can be mitigated through greater social interaction within a connectivist framework. For those responsible for facilitating connectivist networks, building in regular synchronous online events can be especially important to foster an important sense of community and presence among the members of the network. These could include web-based presentations, discussions, or debates as well as learner participation through question and answer sessions or other forms of online dialogue. In this way, critical new ideas can be introduced and discussed. Facilitators, as well as other learners, can also guide the less self-directed along a path to greater empowerment through demonstrated behaviour as well as mentoring or coaching. These are all important omissions from Siemen’s article, but can be accommodated within a connectivist context. As connectivism matures, and more people contribute their experiences and critiques to its core concepts, it will undoubtedly strengthen as a foundational learning theory.
Applications in the Classroom
In addition to being a theory to support self-directed learners pursuing their own informal learning, connectivism can also be used as a foundational theory to support formal learning experiences. Examples of this include the Change MOOC 2011 course offered by Siemens, Cormier, and Downes (2011) and ECI831 by Couros (2011) at the University of Regina. In both examples, the courses were completely online, and based on each student developing her or his own personal knowledge network, using open education resources freely available on the Internet (seeking), student blogs (for sense-making), and Twitter and Delicious (or Diigo) for building connections and sharing resources and reflections. Each course unit had little or no assigned readings, as students were expected to find resources of relevance to their personal learning goals, share what they found with the class, and blog about their reflections on what they drew from them. Students were also expected to post comments to one another’s blog posts to create a discussion around core concepts relevant to the course. Each week also included a guest speaker in a synchronous online classroom, speaking on a topic of importance for the general theme of the course, and ideally drawing students into discussions and activities (such as collaboratively writing or drawing on a shared whiteboard). This synchronous classroom, though less convenient for participants in other time zones, was critical for developing the effective social interactions identified by Kop that reduce a lack of presence (the instructors, guest speakers, and other students were all present in real time and were all actively engaged). These examples also involved instructors acting as facilitators, guiding students with little experience with self-direction toward becoming more responsible for their own learning goals. The active involvement of instructors and guest speakers, as well as other students, also ensured that critical thinking was taking place, and that challenging ideas and concepts were being introduced. Finally, the potential for unequal power relations was at least partially offset by students having a significant amount of autonomy over what they chose to learn, and over how they chose to approach the graded assignments. One of the most challenging elements of any formal education situation is the issue of grades. This traditionally imposes a relationship of unequal power between the student and the instructor, with the instructor typically having almost dictatorial power over the evaluation process. In ECI831, students evaluated their own assignments, reflecting on their strengths, opportunities for improvement, and assigning what they believed to be a fair grade. The instructor reviewed these self-evaluations, added additional comments, recognition of successes, and suggestions for improvement, and either accepted the suggested grade or engaged the student in a dialogue about a different grade. Although the instructor retained the ultimate power (and responsibility) for the final grade, this method of dialogue and engagement goes as far as possible within a contemporary, formal education environment to reduce this power imbalance, based upon a connectivist perspective of student autonomy, responsibility, and empowerment. Drawing in some element of peer evaluation could be a useful addition to this process, inviting students to review each other’s work, either openly or blindly. This would diffuse the power relationship further, as well as introducing students to the critical function of peer review in academic evaluations and increasingly, in the workforce, through the growing implementation of 360-degree assessments (Walker & Smither, 1999).
Widespread adoption of connectivist approaches to formal learning will inevitably face resistance. Perhaps the most controversial aspects are its insistence that the network is more important than the content, that knowledge is a process rather than an artifact, and that knowledge can reside in appliances or other people, and be retrieved as needed rather than incorporated into an individual’s memory. For many students and instructors, the focus of a course is the content and learning that content (and securing it as an artifact within one’s own memory, which Freire (1970) called the “banking” approach to education) is seen as the core reason for taking or teaching the course. Instructors are experts in their content areas and are very attached to what they know and the value of their knowledge. Accepting the fact that the content being taught will soon be outdated and that the development of a strong network for future learning (which will be necessary to remain up-to-date) is difficult to accept. Past practice was that knowledge lasted a lifetime, but the rapid pace of change has disrupted this faster than many people, both instructors and students, can adapt to.
Applications in Knowledge Management
As mentioned by Siemens (2005), connectivism is unique among major learning theories for addressing how learning can happen outside of the minds of individuals and within communities or organizations. This can make it an important theory for advancing knowledge management. In much the same way as the connectivist classroom discussed previously, a connectivist knowledge management strategy would also be based upon a foundation of individual personal knowledge networks, which would then become interconnected with other personal knowledge networks, both within and outside of the organization. Each employee would be engaged in a process of seeking (finding relevant information to perform their current tasks and introduce new ideas and innovations), sense-making (reflect on the value of the new information encountered and discuss its application to their work), and sharing (suggesting valuable resources, contacts, and ideas to other members of the organization). As in the connectivist classroom, the role of a facilitator (the knowledge manager) would be critical to the success of the program, guiding less self-directed individuals toward taking responsibility for their learning, introducing critical thinking and new ideas and connections, encouraging writing and commenting, challenging power imbalances that could arise between management and employees, and ensuring a sense of presence and social interaction through the organization of synchronous learning events, such as guest speakers or webinars. As each member of the organization developed their personal knowledge network, they would narrate their work through public writing (on a blog or wiki) to reveal what they learned and provide a record of their thoughts and actions, useful for current conversations and future reference. Knowledge sharing is an important component of this strategy as well, with each individual sharing not only their own reflections and experiences, but also pointing others toward relevant information sources and other contacts to include in their personal knowledge networks.
Developing this kind of connectivist knowledge management strategy can be an important step toward leveraging the power of informal learning in the workplace and the development of a learning organization. According to Jay Cross (2007), much of the classroom training that happens in the workplace is largely ineffective, and more informal approaches, such as those developed through personal learning networks, are significantly more useful in enhancing employee performance. Peter Senge (2001) describes a learning organization as one that is constant seeking new opportunities for growth and knowledge, and that recognizes the interconnectedness of the workplace and the wider world. A connectivist approach to knowledge management supports the development of learning organizations and the leveraging of informal learning for organizational success.
One of the challenges of developing this kind of connectivist knowledge management strategy would be for individuals to find the time to do this kind of seeking, sense-making, and sharing. People are increasingly feeling overwhelmed at work, and introducing a significant new set of knowledge management tasks could lead to resistance. For this strategy to succeed, there would certainly need to be solid support from senior management, both in terms of understanding the goals of the connectivist knowledge management strategy and management’s active participation in the seeking, sense-making, and sharing process, but also in reallocating resources to allow everyone time to participate. All tasks would need to be reviewed and some eliminated to free up time for engaging in this thoughtful and creative work. There will inevitably be costs for this as the “network of personal knowledge networks” gets established, but once operational, will add significant value through more rapid learning, greater employee engagement, higher productivity, and the
introduction of new ideas and sources of innovation and improvement.
Siemen’s theory of connectivism, first articulated in his article, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, provides a new way of thinking about knowledge and learning in the context of emerging information technology and rapid change. Knowledge should no longer be considered a stable artifact to be passed from one person to another, but instead should be viewed as a process, always changing and growing. The pace of change is so rapid today that no one person can store all of the knowledge required for their professional competence, and instead must offload much of it to technology and others, as part of a personal knowledge network, available for retrieval and access at the point of need. Developing such personal knowledge networks is important for both classroom learning as well as knowledge management within organizations. These networks often require facilitation however, either through a supportive instructor or knowledge manager. If left unsupported, some networks will thrive while others will fail. With support, however, many will succeed and help individuals achieve their goals in the classroom or at work. A network of personal knowledge networks can also form the foundation for the development of learning organizations, able to rapidly adjust to changing environments and thrive in conditions of uncertainty. A connectivist knowledge management strategy can be an important tool in ensuring the ongoing sustainability of organizations in the modern world.
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